About a month ago, millions of people around the world cheered when a team of German researchers revealed how people on a low-carb diet could lose weight faster if they ate chocolate bar every single day. These surprising findings were apparently published in the International Archives of Medicine, and the press release, “Slim by Chocolate,” is available here. It opens with: “Can you indulge your sweet tooth and lose weight at the same time? If it’s chocolate you crave, then the answer seems to be: yes.” The joyous news was shared online, on TV, and in print across 20 countries.
Well, it was a hoax. In io9 this week, John Bohannon the science journalist -- aka lead author Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health -- details exactly how he and his fellow perpetrators pulled it off. For starters, their randomized clinical trial with 16 recruits was flawed, their “statistically significant” result was an artifact of chance, and the paper was published without any peer review.
It started last December when Bohannon was approached by a duo making a documentary about junk science and the diet industry. They had also recruited a general practitioner and a statistician to help them set this up. Then the study began: In January, 16 subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one consumed a low-carb diet, another enjoyed a low-carb diet and a daily 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate (81 percent cocoa content, if you’re curious), and the control group ate whatever they normally eat. The team analyzed 18 measurements ranging from cholesterol to sleep quality.
Turns out, the chocolate group lost weight 10 percent faster. And that’s great news if you don’t look too closely at the details. The paper, “Chocolate with high cocoa content as a weight-loss accelerator,” was accepted by multiple journals within a day of submission, and it only cost 600 Euros to publish.
Then they shot a few promotional videos and drafted a press release with “a sexy lede, a clear nut graf, some punchy quotes, and a kicker,” as Bohannon describes it. After that, all they had to do was wait for us to regurgitate their findings.
“We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose,” he writes. “We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done. The only problem with the diet science beat is that it’s science... Hopefully our little experiment will make reporters and readers alike more skeptical.”